The present crisis is the culmination of a long historical drama that has the potential to spark a new Balkan war and seriously derail the integration of the Western Balkan states into the European Union and NATO.
By Denis Rajic and Marko Attila Hoare
dtt-net.com / afsa.org – Foreign Service Journal Edition – The cordon of police was heavy on Njegosevoj Street in Belgrade on Nov. 9, 2021. Protesters from Serbia’s liberal-oriented political spectrum had gathered, and they had a simple request: Remove the mural to the convicted war criminal Ratko Mladic, which was prominently placed in the street. Minister of the Interior Aleksandar Vulin, a close confidant of President Aleksandar Vucic, was there in person, not only to ensure the protection of the mural but to lay flowers before this altar of Great Serbian genocidal extremism.
The present crisis is the culmination of a long historical drama that has the potential to spark a new Balkan war and seriously derail the integration of the Western Balkan states into the European Union and NATO. In light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing crimes against the civilian population in that country, the danger of a Russia-sanctioned incursion into the Western Balkans remains acute as the Russian military machine is bogged down in the Ukrainian steppes.
Russia has for centuries sought to expand its influence into the Balkans while coopting Balkan states as clients and assuming a right to interfere in their internal affairs. In Serbia, Russia regularly sought to promote leaders and factions that would do its bidding while countering, marginalizing or removing those that would not. Conversely, Serbian leaders have sought Russia’s assistance against both domestic and foreign enemies.
The Russia-Serbia Tie
This Russo-Serbian relationship has frequently been destructive for Serbia and the Balkans and for international peace, particularly in 1914, when it contributed to plunging Europe into World War I. That war wiped out a large part of Serbia’s population and very nearly ended its independent national existence.
Josip Broz Tito, probably the most powerful modern leader ever to rule from a city in the Balkans outside Istanbul, succeeded by maintaining his independence from Moscow, which famously excommunicated his regime in 1948. Yet since Putin took power in 1999, Russia has sought to use Serbia as a pawn to disrupt the Euro-Atlantic integration of the Balkans.
Russia has been an active supporter of Serbian revisionism in Kosovo and regionally. It has worked on multiple fronts, but primarily economic and military, to boost the Vucic regime’s standing in the region. On the economic front, Russian firms are active in the banking, energy and now the defense sectors in Serbia.
On the military front, Russia has sold to Serbia or, in some instances, donated weapons systems that have started to alter the delicate balance of power established following the Yugoslav wars. Russia has donated or sold to Serbia the advanced MiG 29, new T-72 tanks and BRDM-2 armored vehicles. Further, working with the relevant Serbian ministries, Russia has opened up a Russian-Serbian Humanitarian Center in Nis; though it is touted as a nonprofit organization, its military capabilities are clear.
In addition, the two countries have participated in joint military activities with Belarus called the Slavic Brotherhood. It is telling that during the recent border dispute with Kosovo, the Russian ambassador and military attaché were seen at a Serbian military base while Serbian armored vehicles and planes were moved to Kosovo’s border areas. This is a clear indication of how the Kremlin leadership wishes to test NATO and E.U. resolve in the heart of Europe.
A Set Pattern
Russia’s actions follow a set pattern: the promotion of instability beyond its borders in order to occupy Western and NATO resources in areas that the West deems a low priority within its overall strategic goals. The Balkans are a convenient area for crisis-manufacturing by Russia, which has used numerous methods formulated in the Kremlin kitchen to keep NATO and the West strategically tied.
For example, by keeping Kosovo as an issue of contention Russia wishes to drive a wedge within the E.U. and tie Serbia more closely to Moscow. The Serbian push for the creation of the Union (Association) of Serb Municipalities within Kosovo, like the dangerous precedent of territorial swaps, is meant to create lasting instability and bring into question the principles of sovereignty and multiethnicity in societies.
We can no longer afford to sit by and watch this growing challenge by Russia and Serbia to the security of NATO and the E.U.
These strategies were active in North Macedonia, where Russia attempted to influence the 2020 NATO referendum, stirring sectarian tensions with rumored plots of the country’s dissolution.
In Montenegro, too, Russia actively worked with elements from Serbia to bring about a coup and has, with the support of Serbia and the Serbian Orthodox Church, sought to raise ethnic tensions to undermine Montenegrin statehood and national identity.
Yet the weakest link in Balkan equilibrium is Bosnia and Herzegovina, where Russia has worked with local Serbian nationalist leaders to undermine 26 years of attempted stabilization and reform.
With Serbia, Russia has given support to the efforts of the Milorad Dodik regime in Republika Srpska to undermine Bosnian state institutions, bringing the country the closest it has been to another war since 1995. These actions by Serb nationalists challenge the ability of NATO and the E.U. to bring stability and prosperity to their immediate neighborhood.
With the recent events in Ukraine, Dodik has come out in support of Russian actions while at the same time severely testing the established pro-Western political consensus that existed in Bosnian state-level institutions. In a call with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Dodik spoke of activating an established plan discussed during his prior visit to Russia and subsequent meeting with President Putin. With the growing Russian frustration in Ukraine, this could mean a potential widening of Russian military action in the Western Balkans.
A Growing Challenge
We can no longer afford to sit by and watch this growing challenge by Russia and Serbia to the security of NATO and the E.U. The growing military expenditures and closer ties between Serbia and Russia need to be checked by a renewed commitment on the part of NATO and the E.U. to integrate the Western Balkan nations into these organizations. Our re-engagement in the region needs to offset the already established network of instability that has been created by Russia.
Sanctions and economic pressure need to be applied against actors who wish to undermine the hard work of the last 26 years. NATO should seek to engage more vigorously in the region, including to signal to Russia that further instability will not be tolerated. Sanctions would need to be expanded to cover more of President Dodik’s party cadre, and a clear decision by NATO should be made that would station rapid-reaction troops within Bosnia and the wider region to deter possible attempts by Russia to deploy its special forces via Serbia.
The Balkans played a central role in the breakdown of the European order before World War I. We cannot allow it to play a similar role today. With Ukraine at war and the challenges posed by this new world order, we need to show strength and determination, sending a clear message to actors in the region who wish to undermine NATO and the E.U. that the values we hold dear, the values that are currently being challenged in Ukraine, will not be allowed to languish.
(About authors: Denis Rajic is currently serving as the executive assistant at U.S. Consulate Shanghai. He joined the Foreign Service in 2009 from San Francisco, where he worked as a public lobbyist for GCA Strategies. He has served in Taipei, Damascus, Jakarta, Seoul and Kabul.
Marko Attila Hoare is an associate professor and head of research for the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology. Born in London and educated at the University of Cambridge and Yale University, he is the author of four books on the history of Bosnia-Herzegovina and is currently completing work on a history of modern Serbia.
(This opinion was originally published at the website of the American Foreign Service Association: afsa.org )